Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Lost Libraries Found

Several days ago I came across Aaron Lansky's Outwitting History. It looks so much like the A.J. Jacobs book (The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World) in which Jacobs spends attempts to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. Both books have a single towering (leaning?) stack of books on their front covers; both have long subtitles. Lansky's is "The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books." (Note: I have not actually finished either book.)

The subtitle piqued my interest and I began to read Lansky's introduction in which he describes his adventures as a young graduate student, how he became interested in the culture slouching towards extinction, and began his Yiddish studies. A scholar estimated that there were only 70,000 remaining works in Yiddish, and Jacobs made it his mission to rescue those works, illegible to many and regarded by few, and preserve them on behalf of the culture he found rich and necessary.

At the time of the book's publishing, he had collected (as the subtitle suggests) over one million books in Yiddish and begun a movement of preserving the Yiddish language, literature, and culture. Many books were donated, found in attics and basements and next to garbage dumps, were hand bought or given by people who passed down their stories as they handed over the items their ancestors had prized. Lansky also founded the National Yiddish Book Center, one of the "largest and fastest- growing Jewish cultural groups in the world."

Just dipping into his experiences as he races against time, the weather, and financial concerns moved me. That one person is able - with significant dedication, determination and passion - to enact such a change makes me feel capable somehow, or promised capability. If only I had a cause, something which stirred such fierce determination and direction that I was able to make a literary and cultural difference, or preserve that which desperately needs preservation - I would do it.

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